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I Thought You Were Good at Maths?

I am, or was, pretty good at “maths”. That’s if by “maths” you mean being able to work with and visualise abstract concepts and remember and apply rules about how abstract objects behave. It’s this sort of thing that made getting a PhD pretty straightforward for me.

This does not mean that I’m good at arithmetic. I still don’t fully have all of my “times tables” memorised, and, when I used to pay for things in cash at a supermarket, I would dread the “Have you got the three?” question. I’d prefer to come home with a pocket full of change than have to stand there doing mental arithmetic under pressure.

Executive Functioning & Shame

I remember when I was a teenager getting the “I thought you were good at maths?” jibe thrown at me. Often by people who would then follow up with “I went to the university of life, me”. I was frustrated at the time because I wanted to rage at these people until they could understand that arithmetic is but one small (very, tiny) part of “maths” and not a very exciting one to me, and that shaming me for being bad at it was attacking my weaknesses and totally ignoring my related strengths.

Nowadays, having being diagnosed autistic and spent time in autistic online spaces, I understand that mental arithmetic has a lot to do with Executive Functioning and that this is something that I have difficulties with. Not least because mental arithmetic relies a lot on short term memory and being able to use those few “memory slots” to hold the numbers that you would instead write down if you had the opportunity.

I’ve spent a lot of my life agreeing with these accusing jibes. “I should be good at this. How can I not be good at this when I’m good at that?”

And those kinds of extrapolated expectations spread easily into everyday life; “How can I plan software validation in my sleep and yet fail to remember a bar order?” (Answer – I must be stupid and clueless like everyone says).

Lack of support and Stress

Those easy assumptions that we all make about how competent people are, the ones that treat competence as a single thing and label people either “Super clever” or “Idiotic” (sic[1]) or “High Functioning” or “Low functioning” (sic sic sic sic sic!) are really, really unhelpful.

I have experienced hand-trembling, chest-pounding, blood-draining levels of stress because I failed to arrange a meeting *again* this time forgetting one other random thing from the list of “Declare objectives, write agenda, invite people, negotiate best date venue and time, circulate minutes of last meeting, book suitable meeting room, tell reception to expect visitors” and so on. Similarly I’ve had the same sort of stress getting Christmas cards and presents for people because I always forgot one combination like the card from our cat to my gran’s dog.

Eventually I started looking after myself by making checklists, but it would have been a lot easier if I had known about Executive Functioning much, much earlier in life.

A benefit of Diagnosis

So, a benefit to me of autism diagnosis (and I include self diagnosis / realisation here) and consequently spending time in relevant online spaces is that I now know about Executive Functioning and that being good at one thing has nothing to do with being good at another.

[1] if you haven’t come across it before “sic” in this context effectively means “Their words not mine”


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